Tag: paradigms

A Quarter-Baked Note on Grand Theory in IR

Political scientists often say that ‘no one reads books anymore.’ I’d add that ‘almost no one reads book reviews.’

This is a shame. Although most book reviews are paint-by-numbers affairs, some smuggle in provocative claims or important statements about aspects of the field.* For example, in his Perspectives on Politics review of Miles Kahler, ed. Networked Politics: Agency, Power, and Governance, Zeev Maoz nails an important problem with one branch of work on social networks in international relations:

most network analysts would view the “networks as structures” versus “networks as actors” dichotomy as fundamentally flawed. The various chapters actually demonstrate this point. Even those authors who study networks as actors focus on the structure of the network and its effects on outcomes. Network analysis is capable not only of distinguishing between hierarchies and decentralized forms of connectivity but also of measuring them in quite precise ways.

On the provocative side, there’s Cameron Thies’ review (in the same issue) of two books, Christopher J. Fettweis’s Dangerous Times? The International Politics of Great Power Peace and Gilulio M. Gallarotti’s Cosmopolitan Power in International Relations: A Synthesis of Realism, Neoliberalism, and Constructivism. Continue reading

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Wight’s “Incommensurability” – An “End of IR Theory” Related Link

SAGE has temporarily un-gated Colin Wight’s “Incommensurability and Cross-Paradigm Communication in International Relations Theory: ‘What’s the Frequency Kenneth?'” Millennium – Journal of International Studies 1996, 25: 291 (PDF). 

Get it while its hot! 
Thanks to, and via, David Mainwaring
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Historical Institutionalism and International Relations

[warning: this post and the piece attached to is is only of interest to a handful of academics]

The April 2011 issue of International Organization included a very interesting review essay by Orfeo Fioretos entitled “Historical Institutionalism in International Relations.” The thrust of Fioretos’ argument, developed through a discussion of books ranging from John Ikenberry’s After Victory to Abe Newman’s Protectors of Privacy, is that international-relations scholarship would benefit from an historical-institutionalist turn. Although I found myself in agreement with the broad claims in the piece, I had difficulty with some of its specifics.

Anyone seeking to forward an historical-institutionalist agenda faces a basic problem: the approach doesn’t have what many would consider a coherent core. It emerged, as such, when a few scholars came up with a name for a motley body of work that they saw as distinguished by its opposition to “presentism” and to a rigid adherence to rational-choice theories. In his essay, Fioretos deals with this by, as far as I can tell, deciding that behavioral psychology in general, and prospect theory in particular, supplies historical institutionalism with microfoundations.

This didn’t make much sense to me, as I couldn’t recall seeing this claim advanced from within the ranks of self-proclaimed historical institutionalism. It also got a little under my skin. I’ve always considered my work as, at least, cognate to historical institutionalism and yet I don’t adopt such microfoundations.

The result of my discomfort was a response piece that I shipped off to International Organization. A few weeks ago I received a very nice note from the editors declining to send the piece out for review on the grounds that the issues raised weren’t sufficiently important to merit publication. I don’t have a problem with this, but as journals in our field don’t generally publish responses to articles that appear in other journals, there’s not much left to do with the response. So I’ve decided to make it available here in the hopes that someone will get something useful out of it.

UPDATE: also available, in convenient HTML format, at e-International Relations.

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On Paradigms, Policy Revelance and Other IR Myths


I had every intention this evening of writing a cynical commentary on all the hoopla surrounding Open Government, Open Data and the Great Transparency Revolution. But truth be told, I am brain-dead at the moment. Why? Because I spent the last two days down in Williambsurg, VA arbitrating codes for a Teaching, Research and International Politics (TRIP) project (co-led by myself and Jason Sharman) which analyzes what the field of IR looks like from the perspective of books. It is all meant as a complement to the innovative and hard work of Michael Tierney, Sue Peterson and the TRIP founders down at William & Mary, who have sought to map the field of IR by systematically coding all published articles in the top 12 peer-reviewed disciplinary journals for characteristics such as paradigm, methodology, epistemology and policy relevance. In addition, the TRIP team has conducted numerous surveys of IR scholars in the field, the latest round capturing nearly 3000 scholars in ten countries. The project, while not immune from nit-picky criticism about its methodological choices and conclusions, has yielded several surprisingly results that have both reified and dismantled several myths about the field of IR.

So, in the spirit of recent diatribes on the field offered by Steve and Brian, I summarize a few of the initial findings of our work to serve as fodder for our navel-gazing discussion:

Myth #1: IR is now dominated by quantitative work

Truth: Depends on where you look. This is somewhat true if you confine yourself to the idea that we can know the field only by peering into the pages of IO, ISQ, APSR and the like. Between 2000-2008, according to a TRIP study by Jordan et al (2009), 38.8% of journal articles employed quantitative methods,while 30.4% used qualitative methods. [In IPE, however, the trend is definitely clearer: in 2006, 90% of articles used quantitative methods — see Maliniak and Tierney 2009, 20)]. But the myth of quantitative dominance is dispelled when we look beyond journals. In the 2008 survey of IR scholars, 72% of scholars reported that they use qualitative methods as their primary methodology. In our initial study of books between 2000-2010, Jason and I found that 58% of books use qualitative methods and only 9.3% use quantitative (the rest using mainly descriptive methods, policy analysis and the rare formal model).

Myth #2: In IR, it’s all about PARADIGMS.

Truth: Well, not really. As much as we kvetch about how everyone has to pay homage to realism, liberalism, constructivism (and rarely, Marxism) in order to get published, the truth is that a minority of published IR work takes one or more of these paradigms as the chosen framework for analysis. Surveys reveal that IR scholars still think of Realism as the dominant paradigm, yet realism shows up as the paradigm of choice in less than 10% of both books and article. Liberalism is slightly more prevalent – it is the paradigm of choice in around 26% of journal articles and 20% of books. Constructivism has actually overtaken realism, but still amounts to only 11% of journal articles and 17% of books in the past decade. Instead, according to the TRIP coding scheme, most of the IR work is “non-paradigmatic” (meaning it takes theory seriously, but doesn’t use one of the usual paradigmatic suspects) or is “atheoretic”. [Stats alert: 45% of journal articles are non-paradigmatic and 9.5% atheoretic, whereas books are 31% non-paradigmatic and 23% are atheoretical).

So, Brian: does IR still “really like” the isms?

Myth #3: Positivism rules.

Truth: Yep, that one is pretty much on the mark. 86% of journal articles AND 85% of books between 2000-2010 employed a positivist methodology. Oddly, however, only 55% of IR scholars surveyed report to see themselves as positivists. I’m going to add that one to the list of “things that make me go hmmmmm…..”

Myth #4: IR scholarship is not oriented towards policy.

Truth: Sadly, true. Only 12% of journal articles offer policy recommendations. [Ok, a poor proxy, but all I had to go on from the TRIP coding system]. Books are slightly more likely to dabble in policy, with 22% offering some sort of policy prescriptions – often quite limited and lame in my humble coding experience. Still, curiously, scholars nonetheless perceive themselves differently. 29% of scholars says they are doing policy-oriented research. This could be entirely true if they are doing this outside the normal venues of published research in the discipline and we’re simply not capturing it in our study (blogs, anyone?). All of which begs several questions: are IR scholars really engaging in policy debates? If so, how? Where? If not, why not? (Hint: fill out the next TRIP survey in the fall 2011 and we’ll find out!!)

(Note to readers: I was unable to provide a link to the draft study that Jason and I conducted on books, as it is not yet ready for prime time on the web. But if you have any questions about our project, feel free to email me).

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Stuff Political Scientists Like #7, International Relations edition: Isms

Lest you ask, I do understand the irony of me writing this particular post and risking being a one-hit blogger with the continuation of this series. But I haven’t read a single Harry Potter book, so there is not much I can do. Enjoy!

If you show up at the bar at a conference of international relations scholars, you will immediately stumble upon a conversation about paradigms or ‘isms.’ You will quickly learn that almost all of those same scholars hate the isms and believe the field would be better off without them. Yet this conversation is the same one that has occurred at every hotel bar at an IR conference for 20 years. You are confused. This is because you must first recognize that international relations is like reality TV. This particular species of political scientists claim not to like the ‘isms,’ but the ratings speak otherwise.
If you are an international relations scholar and you want to get published in a big IR journal with a high impact factor, the odds are low, somewhat less than the chances of becoming the next American Idol. And even if you do get this type of network TV facetime, people still might not notice you. Do you remember who the second Bachelor was? The most important thing to do is to say something really crazy, like you can explain war and peace merely by reference to the size of the ‘selectorate.’ From this, you can build your ‘ism,’ your very own IR brand. This ensures a high citation count, the academic equivalent to press coverage, on which all reality TV contestants depend to keep their celebrity alive after their series end.

It is best if you contrive a feud with another, equally mental international relations scholar. Take lessons from Kanye West. This strategy is the same as what TV tells us is the best way to establish street cred in prison – sucker punch the biggest guy in jail on the first day. All academics like a good fight. Even the constructivists. Even feminists will watch female mud wrestling. You can’t look away.
You are now an instant celebrity, the Snooki of the field. (Wear underwear at all times.) It is obvious to non-celebrity academics (the TV audience) that you couldn’t possibly believe such nonsense, but they will not be able to stop talking about you (People magazine). Gossip sites like Political Science Job Rumors (Perez Hilton) will allow internet trolls to post spiteful things about your success, but this only ensures that your reputation grows. Soon you will have a prestige book series to edit (line of fragrances) and an endowed chair (development deal) with which you can train graduate students to be just like you but who inevitably fizzle out as they are always lesser versions of the original (Temptation Island, Hogan Knows Best, the Real Wives of Orange County).
International relations scholars like ‘isms’ for the same reason that television execs like reality TV. They have much lower production costs, as they are much less arduous and cognitively taxing than intense empirical work, which is the equivalent of scripted television. For regular workaday scholars, they are just the kind of brainless thing to sit down and read after a long, mentally tiring day. ‘Iron Chef’ trumps ‘The Wire’ any day. They might feel guilty about it, but this is what they end up talking about at the hotel bar at conferences, which is closest thing to a water cooler that international relations scholars have.
There are still outlets for non-‘ism’ work in excellent niche journals with a more narrow readership, where nuance and sophistication are still important, much like cable TV. But whatever you do, do not start blogging. That is a ticket straight to the D-List.
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Papa Don’t Preach: Rationalism is an Ism


Just yesterday I cautioned a graduate student not to get on the wrong side of some powerful people for the sake of principle if he could not truly effect change. And yet here I sit typing this right now, about to begin a rant on David Lake’s new ISQ article: “Why ”isms’ are evil: Theory, Epistemology, and Academic Sects as Impediments to Understanding and Progress.” Nexon started it. It is his fault.

The piece is taken from David Lake’s keynote address as ISA president and identifies five pathologies with dividing our field up the way we do, along ‘ism’ lines. We reify research traditions, reward extremism, mistake research traditions for actual theories, focus on the things that our approach is best at explaining so as to confirm our biases, and insist that our approach is the genuinely scientific one. I am going to assign this to my graduate seminar. I agree with every word. That is why it drives me so crazy.

It is not the message. It is the messenger. More than most other scholars, Lake has been part of the rationalist turn in international relations theorizing. His approach is wonderful, but not eclectic. It is simple applied microeconomics to problems of international relations and cooperation. I know Entangling Relations like the back of my hand, as it is the primary target of my forthcoming book on Trust in International Cooperation and my recent piece in IO. In his, there are no counterarguments, nothing to test his argument against. There is only rationalism.

Yet I don’t think Lake ever uses the word rationalism in that book, and probably only sporadically elsewhere. This is because, like others, he insists that rationalism is not an ‘ism.’ Realism, liberalism, constructivism, even feminism — these are part of the problem. But rationalism might as well be the Loch Ness monster. It is myth, a legend, something that you scare your kids with as you read them to sleep but not something that actually exists in daylight. And yet your dogs keep going missing…..

Stop right there. You are going to tell me that rationalism is a methodology, or an approach, not a substantive theory of international relations, that all rationalists assume is transitivity in preferences. You are wrong. In fact, Lake along with Robert Powell, lay out its fundamentals in an edited book called Strategic Choice and International Relations. This is a marvelous book, one of my all time favorites, precisely because it lays out the ontology of rationalism so well. But just because you change the name and call it an approach does not mean it is not rationalism and a proper ‘ism,’ just like the rest.

Like other isms, rationalism has a particular vision of the world, of individualist utilitarian maximizers engaged in a constant strategic interaction with others individualist utilitarian maximizers. Individual units are only held together by common interest, and those common interests could diverge at any time. There is no deep and abiding trust, no common identity, only these rapacious little units. This is why the rationalist revolution has been so revolutionary. It points out how states might make disastrous decisions about whether to go to war or how long to fight that are perfectly rational for the leaders who make them because those leaders are interested primarily in saving their own hide. This might just be cynical folk wisdom dressed up in academic garb, but I cannot think of a more compelling criticism of and comparison to realism. It was a useful corrective. We should be forever grateful. But let’s not pretend it is not an ism.

Stop right there. You are saying that the utility function is left open by rationalists, that it is capable of accounting for say, altruism. True, in theory. But in practice, name more than five articles or books that actually assume anything other than naked self-interest on the part of international actors, at whatever level of analysis. There is a reason for this. The strategic view of the world is a cynical view of the world, and a cynical view is a selfish view. That is fine, but I’m calling a spade a spade. Have you ever given a talk and had a formal theorist, for instance, ask if you aren’t being too cynical, if the political actors you are discussing aren’t more concerned with the public good than you give them credit for? I didn’t think so.

Lake no longer teaches ‘isms’ in his course, he tells us. Instead he relies on his strategic choice approach, which, as we have established, is not an ism. He advises us to focus our intellectual efforts on pragmatic problem-solving, of which three elements are of prime importance — interests, institutions and interactions. These are, of course, the basic building blocks identified in his book with Powell. Surely we can all agree on that.

For his part, Lake acknowledges his own part in these pathologies, in a footnote. And maybe he is having some mid-career Road to Damascus moment. His recent article in International Security advised us to develop behavioral theories of bargaining informed by psychological factors. Those psychologically minded who saw that might have rejoiced, had we not been doing that for several decades already with barely a nod from the other side of the aisle.

So, the more that I think of it, I don’t agree with Lake at all. Yes, paradigms have these pathologies. But the paradigm problem was one of the 1980s and 1990s more than it is today. Today we have hegemony, and worse, a hegemony that claims not to be coherent or even to exist. I think the complaint that many have is not that they can’t get into some of the bigger IR journals because they are constructivists or liberals or whatever, it is because they are not rationalists.

I want people to put their money, literally, where their mouth is. If diversity of viewpoints is important, then I’ll be happy to announce, on this very blog, UCSD’s search for a new junior line in critical security studies. You heard it here first! Of course California needs a budget first…..

If Lake is serious about such a project, I’d be the first to get behind him. When someone tells me, “I am a realist” or “I am a constructivist,” they immediately lose all credibility to me as a social scientist. Saying that means you know the answer before you start looking, which is the very opposite of science. You might as well say, I am a liberal. Or I am a conservative. I think paradigms can be destructive, too. But first we have to be honest about the current state of the field and the real substantive cleavages in it. We are not there yet.

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Ned is dead, baby. Ned is dead.


So I have finally caught up on all the back episodes of Game of Thrones, so I know what the hell you are all talking about. I thought I’d take up Charli’s challenge about the paradigm that Dead Ned represents because I think that it says something deeper (always deeper) about something missing in IR theory these days.

Ned represents duty, honor and integrity as opposed to old school Machiavellianism (although I guess duty, honor and integrity are even more old school). But that is not liberalism, not at all. Those are all deeply conservative virtues. They are more romantic than rationalist, more nationalistic than internationalist. Who is Ned Stark loyal to? His king, despite that the fact that he rules arbitrarily. No liberal would do that. And I don’t recall Ned calling for some type of constitutional monarchy.


Ned Stark’s character is more in keeping with romanticism than English School enlightenment. That particular epoch stressed the organic rather than the deliberative nature of things. It was profoundly emotional rather than detached and Machiavellian. It was communitarian not individualist.

The problem with IR theory is that the constructivists tend to be liberal, focusing on nice things, cosmopolitan and global norms, to the detriment of any number of more common norms that promote duty to the state or the nation. And the neorealists neglect them because they are non-material in nature. So they fall between the stools. As a consequence, all kinds of interesting things remain unstudied. We can’t understand any number of wars and conflicts without paying attention to duty and honor and other romantic notions, particularly during the romantic period of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Constructivists are the ones to do it but they are too cosmpolitan. That was the natural first step but now they should dig deeper. In Steve Saideman’s oft quoted words, “Where else do we see such inter-subjectivity?” Make Ned undead.

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Flat-Footed Empiricists of the World, Unite!

You have nothing to lose but those pesky questions about whether your methods actually prove anything….

[Warning: what follows will likely only be of interest to practitioners and students of academic IR]

[UPDATED 2/4/07]

Almost a year ago, but two months after the conversation had moved on, “IR scholar not philosopher”–who, to his/her credit included an amusing false email address (empiricist@empiricist.com)–posted an interesting comment in response to a post I wrote on realism and constructivism. I lack the energy to respond to it right now, but I thought it might provide some grist for discussion among interested parties.

Dan: “I have yet to read a debate between self-identified realists and self-identified constructivists in which such questions as (to take one example) whether the rockness of rocks is generated by human language or by a rock’s intrinsic rockness made one whit of difference to resolving the dispute.”

Well, I can think of a couple of reasons why this debate (or one analogous to it) has yet to take place within international relations scholarship: 1, the discipline, as represented by the derth of such articles in the major journals in the field (IO, IS, APSR, JCR, ISQ), has decided that IR is moving on as an empirical social science rather than one dominated by large paradigmatic wars or debates, and 2, the arguments (and the concepts employed) are so far up in the clounds that if they magically landed on the desk of an [sic] newly-minted assistant professor of IR who was then asked to investigate the argument, he/she would have a difficult time identifying both what they are trying to explain and how to operationalize and test it.

“IR scholars have an unfortunate tendency to see two boneheaded people arguing about something and call it a case of “incommensurable ontology.”

you must be studying an entirely different type of IR than the rest of us. You seem more interested in developing a philosohpy of how the world works (or ought to work, I cannot tell which) than testing theoretical arguments against the empirical record and actually telling us something important about the world.

I think it is time to come down out of the clouds, identify something meaningful in IR that you want to explain, develop an explanation from stated assumptions, define the domain, develop logical hypotheses, and then test your argument against the data.

From someone who doesn’t want to see the field flushed down the toilet, this is my request.

UPDATE: since of my colleagues inadvertently thought I was affirming (rather than offering up for discussion) the views quoted above, I suppose I need to clarify.

If it isn’t clear from the opening lines of my post, I don’t endorse this view; or, to be more precise, I have serious reservations about it. A few quick points:

1. IRSNP accuses me of “studying a different type of IR than the rest of us.” I’m not sure what, exactly, this means because I’m not clear on who “us” is. Certainly, one can find any number of articles–some of which have been “field defining”–in major journals over the last two decades, including, yes, International Organization, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, and the American Political Science Review that involve, either explicitly or implicitly, claims about incommensurable assumptions in the field. So either the field has already been flushed “down the toilet” or there’s actually little problem with allowing multiple kinds of debates and scholarship to take place in the social sciences.

2. IRSNP makes a very classic mistake of practicing flat-footed empiricists, the conflation of their own (often unspecified) philosophical supposition of “how the world works” with a lack of a “philosophy” about how the world works. This is a very old, and well-recognized problem that would hardly need to be remarked upon if more social scientists took a few months to familiarize themselves with the relevant work in social theory and philosophy of science.

3. At the same time, I’m sympathetic to those frustrated with some of the non-issues that get batted about in “high theory” debates. Which was, ironically, enough, the thrust of the discussion that IRSNP intervened in about two months too late.

In reposting these comments, however, I did not want to get a round in against the anonymous contributor to the thread. Thus, my initial decision to post his/her as a possible touchstone for debate. Sunship (in the discussion thread to this post) has already raised some very interesting issues and concerns; I hope others will weigh in.

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